A lifetime absorbing cloak and dagger drama has prepared Graeme Blundell for the latest conspiracy theory series
I’ VE always loved a good conspiracy thriller, easily sucked in by the conflict of secrecy and spies, honour and betrayal, the darkness in the shadows. In the subversion- obsessed late 1950s I discovered Britons John Buchan, Geoffrey Household, Graham Greene and Eric Ambler. I was fixated on trade craft: clandestine meetings, dead letter drops, surveillance traps and how to hide messages in a boiled egg.
Spy mad, I read on through the more ambiguous, bleaker ’ 70s and ’ 80s, when decent agents were betrayed and compromised by treachery in the top levels of the espionage establishment.
Conspiracy thrillers were their own film genre in the late ’ 60s and ’ 70s, wonderful flashes of paranoid bleakness such as The Parallax View , All the President’s Men, The Conversation and The Manchurian Candidate . Any protagonist who stumbled on evidence of conspiracies deep within the upper circles of the US government and the corporate establishment found themselves in terrible jeopardy.
These movies dramatising the idea of conspiracy fantasies and institutional distrust were dark and unsettling, and profoundly pleasurable. Even comedies such as television’s Get Smart were conspiracist, making pointed, almost subversive, comments about many political issues.
In one episode, framed by an image of a mushroom cloud, Maxwell Smart ( Don Adams) tells his partner, the gorgeous 99 ( Barbara Feldon), the US should insist on every other nation outlawing nuclear weapons. ‘‘ What if they don’t?’’ she says. ‘‘ Then we may have to blast them,’’ Max replies. ‘‘ That’s the only way to keep peace in the world.’’
In the real world there were political assassinations and scandals, and the hated Vietnam War. It was easy to believe in the existence of a Rightist conspiracy within the establishment aimed at destroying anyone who threatened the power of the military- industrial complex.
Following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks the genre has come in from the cold; every second novel I read or TV drama I watch presents dark conspiratorial visions highly suspicious of our political institutions.
The latest entertainment in our paranoia revival is the BBC’s The State Within , a complex six- hour tale of terrorism and international politics set mostly in Washington, DC. Slick and highly entertaining, Lizzie Mickery and Daniel Percival’s frantic thriller is just the show to trigger a few more suspicions about the war in Iraq. As if we need any.
A witty, sharply clever script works from a perceptive cynicism about the secretive use of state power and a less than hysterical abhorrence of abuses of the USA PATRIOT Act and witch-
Thrills and kills: Jason Isaacs as Mark Brydon, centre, flanked by Sharon Gless and Ben Daniels
hunts for Islamist terrorists. For those of us who grew up on stories about why governments can never be trusted, this is unmissable entertainment. We’ve got moles, suitcase bombs, assassinations, secret agencies, dead bodies, a clever exploration of how big business manipulates countries into wars, and even good guys who seem like bad guys.
This beautifully crafted pot boiler is somehow held together by a totally confusing plot- line that begins with at least four seemingly unrelated narrative threads. A British flight explodes as it’s taking off from Dulles international airport, showering the Rolls- Royce of British ambassador Mark Brydon ( Jason Isaacs) with debris before he inexplicably leaps out to deliver some clumsy first aid by the side of the beltway. A shocked Washington quickly discovers it’s a terrorist explosion, the bomber a British Muslim.
Effective immediately, British Asians can be detained without charge; British paratrooper and Falklands war hero Luke Gardner ( Lennie James) awaits execution on Florida’s death row; and, in Virginia, Gardner’s former brothers- inarms prepare a private military operation organised by a British military contractor working for an American paymaster. Another plot- line follows a disgraced former British ambassador ( Alex Jennings), a diplomatic untouchable, opposed to human rights abuses and sanctioned torture, who happens to be a close friend of Brydon.
More dark secrets, death and betrayal. The only things missing are those boiled egg messages. At least I think so; I may have missed them. This genre, even at the level at which this show works, requires suspension of disbelief and a willingness to submit to the tortuous unravelling of plot and the introduction of countless characters. Watch for the ferocious US secretary of defence, Lynne Warner, played by Sharon Gless as a Hillary Clinton doll channelling Donald Rumsfeld. ‘‘ We’re paying that asshole $ 100 million a year to scratch his balls,’’ she says of a central Asian dictator in whose country the bomber may have been trained.
The acting is strong. It should be, as not much is required. The plot is propelled in such a jagged, fast- cutting style that the dialogue becomes emblematic; conversations simply flag posts to keep it moving.
Flint- jawed Isaacs, still recognisable as Lucius Malfoy, the influential henchman of Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies, is a sympathetic, reluctant hero. Ben Daniels as the British counsellor of external affairs, essentially Brydon’s Mr Fixit, does the questionable motives subtext with just the right Machiavellian charm. And James is bluntly charismatic as the condemned paratrooper on death row, with a chilling ability to milk the close- ups within which he largely performs. Michael Offer directs the early episodes with such expertise that, baffled, you just follow along, with little idea of what is happening but engrossed by the sensuality of the storytelling. He loves big hovering close- ups, tense, highly subjective camera work and kaleidoscopically cut action sequences.
There is a wonderful myth of internal conspiracy at work in shows such as this, a quasimoral and spiritual vision of something going on in the world just out of our reach. It’s a notion of archetypal power and playfulness that is wonderfully entertaining. ‘‘ I used to love those double- double games,’’ an old researcher says in John le Carre’s Smiley’s People . ‘‘ All human life was there.’’
The State Within, ABC1 at 8.30pm, Thursday.